As long as almost a hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner frequently insisted on economical teaching in the basic lectures, Practical Advice to Teachers, he gave for the teachers of the first Waldorf school: “This will only be achievable if we apply a golden rule, especially when it comes to the older children who will only briefly come to us before we must release them to the other institutions of life: teach economically.” What this means is that the varying fields of study should be taught in parallel and supporting one another. This already posed a challenge back then, and poses an even greater one now. Are we successful in this or are many schools reaching a limit here, creating an imbalance?
In the curriculum employed by Waldorf schools, the various areas of study are connected with each other from the start. For example geography and economic history, but also crafts and industry.
The structure and order of the practical activities at school try to emulate the historical development of the trades as well as of technology and industry. Through this method, pupils thus experience the transformation of the fields of work and the trades through practical activities. They practice practical activities in agriculture with sowing and harvesting, crafts in the house building main lesson through handling wood, stone and mortar. These skills are then refined through carving and carpentry. And the transition from the trades to engineering is accomplished through an industrial placement, where these still take place.
This is a well rounded, coherent structure which pupils experience in a practical way. They take a lot away with them from this experience which is often positively reflected back to them – from parents, who place a lot of value on this, to future employers. Occasionally, the pupils do not realise this until they have left the school and notice in the day-to-day practical things: “I know what I’m doing in a lot of different areas and I am capable of doing these things!”
Nevertheless, it poses the question how this potential can be better developed to keep up with modern trends, both in terms of the curriculum and the idea. Even the Waldorf schools are influenced by the “reserve currency” of school leaving qualifications and degrees. This path towards academisation, the primary goal towards which most strive, often supersedes and imposes itself upon all other goals. Why is this the case, when everything should be oriented towards the harmony embodied by the maxim of head, heart, and hand? Can this simply be attributed to societal priorities, which start to apply their pressure here in the school, causing the fundamental objectives of the school to be reshaped? What role do the schools themselves play and how can the equality prescribed by the curriculum be better realised? In my opinion, this is going to become one of the central challenges faced by Waldorf schools in the future.
The craft subjects are rightly and on good educational grounds organised in Waldorf schools in line with the development of the human being. They are guided by the approach to the world appropriate for the respective age: imitation, comprehension, integration into the context of the surrounding world. Later the individual creative powers are developed. Lessons confront the pupils with the characteristics of the materials and the specific challenges of the modern working environment at all levels, specifically also including the practical technical fields. Against this background, experience of pre-modern craft and technical practices, such as basket weaving and book binding, are absolutely meaningful for the development of the personality and the ability to understand these contexts and accordingly empathise with the historical situations.
They offer haptic access to the pre-modern era and enable pupils to form and understand the cognitively mediated picture in a multi-dimensional manner. How can this, however, be continued? Waldorf schools are struggling to find ways to maintain this balance through to upper school.
A modern understanding of trades
The popular idea of trades in our society is often very outdated. For example, many people believe that sanitary engineers are simply people who have to lug toilet bowls up the stairs. Most of them, however, do not see that this technical vocation is a highly specialised, technically diverse profession. Sanitary engineers need to advise clients and architects. They are required to have digital proficiency in the planning stage, be able to understand the complex ecological relationships between heating, ventilation and water supply, while at the same time demonstrating technical skills when it comes to the installation of a multitude of different appliances. This modern vocational path is often forgotten when careers are discussed in schools, even in Waldorf schools. The challenge facing Waldorf schools is therefore to find a way to extend these connections: from the development of the trades, from basic techniques and historical origins to interdisciplinary and complex modern vocational fields.
In concrete terms, this means further development when it comes to the curriculum. A contemporary image of trade professions has to be communicated to pupils. This can be achieved through interdisciplinary connections between cognitive subjects and learning content with practical, activity-oriented questions: what challenges does physics pose in the utilisation of materials and technology, for example, when it comes to modern methods in the production of vehicles? How can ecological insights become concrete options for action in the trades: in water supply and disposal, in alternative, renewable energy sources – such as in the planning and construction of a combined heat and power station as a challenge for modern craftsmanship. Even when it comes to the project for the year, digital planning techniques could be employed.
In addition to this, cooperation should be fostered with companies in which scientific issues are tackled in concrete, practical problems and in which the joy and experience of finding the solutions gives the learning contents additional practical meaning. The willingness for such cooperation already exists in many places in the world of work. It is a convenient way for companies to offer pupils an insight into what various vocations can offer as a career option. It is a favourable time for offering such an opening into the diversity of the modern world of work. In order to be able to realise this – in view of the ever increasing pressure of time – the economical ways of thinking (in lessons) mentioned above have to be further developed in middle and upper school. Since in the higher classes the importance of the subject teacher, and thus specialisation, increases, such a programme requires great interdisciplinary coordination within the colleges of teachers.
If the colleagues working in the cognitive and practical fields do not work together, the challenges facing the pupils will only begin to pile up and become a disjointed, almost unmanageable burden for them. The location for such cooperation should be at the meetings for middle and upper school, rather than at the specialist subject meetings.
The transition from the “old” trade skills into modern, technical applications has to be demonstrated in such a way that the pupils are able to experience it at first hand and that it has meaning for them. It can’t be interrupted half way through and sacrificed to the cognitive subjects. Today there are no longer any basket weavers and hardly any blacksmiths, but there are a lot of mechatronic engineers. Here I see at a lot of schools that this context and the “parallel progression” of craft, technical and cognitive development is breaking down and falling apart. We are no longer succeeding in schools in realising this multidimensionality of progress. In the tension between the manual and mental subjects the learning processes are increasingly weighted towards the mental.
Why are Waldorf schools losing traction?
So why is it that the separate qualities of work of the trades are losing ground to the cognitive, intellectual fields of study? One element is certainly the extremely high levels of societal pressure that push everything in the direction of academisation. Over the course of the last several years, it has become the norm in terms of societal discourse that such academisation has become a requirement for many professional fields. It has not only affected the social professions but also the original trades. Waldorf schools too, of course, also felt the effects of the so called PISA shock in 2000. As a result of this, a programme of academisation was forced through as a consequence of the OECD, of which the results can been observed in our schools.
Over the course of the years since the PISA study, studying in and of itself, as well as university entrance qualifications, have become enthroned as the guiding principle and main objective of education at the school level. As a consequence, other professional paths seem to pale in comparison and pupils are no longer given an understanding of them as tangible, viable alternatives. The recommendation to Germany was: a greater number of school leavers with university entrance qualifications, a greater number of pupils in tertiary education, and a greater number of academically trained people.
However, over the long term this has lead to a form of one-sidedness. Especially when it comes to pupils today, the entire range of possible professions should be made visible and the validity of each of the professions should be readjusted so that as a result each individual pupil is offered the opportunity to experience their own self-efficacy in all fields of study, both in terms of the cognitive, academic aspects as well as the practical, technical aspects. This range was originally inherent to the Waldorf schools. However, the current objective should be to recapture and strengthen this impulse.
Challenging yearly projects could function as an incentive here: trades-related projects which ideally would be professionally implemented in cooperation with companies and which would be recognised as an individual achievement in their own right. In the best case scenario, we can hope that Waldorf schools are successful in maintaining the inherent, practical approaches to the world that can be found in the lower classes through to the academic secondary stages. It is therefore worthwhile to focus more strongly on this tradition again and to look for potential partners in this venture.
About the author: Hans Hutzel is the managing director as well as a teacher at the Emil Molt Academy in Berlin and a member of the council of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.